Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
Dead she lay, unmoving, with one arm flung limply over the edge of the altar, her eyes wide and staring upward at the low dome above that was marked with strange and alien signs and sigils. Her black hair was dark and wet, her skin the pallid hue of death itself. No! Even more! Her smooth skin was so white it almost hurt the eyes, as though every last drop of blood had been sucked from her flesh.
Niall glared about him, sword up and ready to thrust, to slay as Lylthia had been slain. Yet there was no foe, no enemy to cleave. It was quiet as a tomb, this charnel room, with only his own breathing to break the stillness.
His eyes went over that face, lovely even now in death. Her lips had lost their redness, her cheeks their tinting. But the traces of beauty lingered, and something inside the Sell-sword sorrowed to its sight. They had reaved her tattered leather tunic from her, her body was nude. As she had come into the world so she had gone from it.
“He’ll pay,” Niall whispered. “Somehow, I’ll find a way to make him pay.”
He touched her hand, squeezing the cold flesh just once, then moved on, past the altar to an ironbound door that opened beyond it into another corridor. This passageway was lighted by torches at distant intervals, and as his eyes raked it, he saw that it was empty — or was it?
For as he walked he seemed almost to see a blackness in the darker shadows, a blackness that flitted ahead of him, that ran and curved and leaped, seemed almost to — beckon. Niall growled in his throat. He did not like such shadows, that went before him so enticingly.
He followed that shadow, dogged its fluttering steps, for the urge to slay Maylok was strong within him. He must pay the warlock with the same fate he had given little Lylthia. Nothing less would satisfy the barbaric urge to slay that rode him with his every heartbeat.
When he came to a curving stone staircase, he paused, but it seemed that the shadow was still before him, lifting an arm as if to urge him onward. With a grunt, the Sell-sword raced up those steps, his blade ready for instant use—
—and burst into a vast chamber.
He slid to a stop at sight of the lighted bowls about the room, at sight of the pentagram glistening red in blood, within which stood a tall man cowled in purple robe on which were stitched in golden threads the secret symbols of the demon worlds. Rigid stood the necromancer, his face pale and almost skull-like under the cowl that covered his head, a grim smile upon his thin, cruel mouth.
“Welcome, Niall of the Far Travelings. I have waited for you, even since you came through the land gate, two days hence.”
“You slew Lylthia. For that you die.”
Maylok chuckled. “Do I, Far-traveler? Behold!”
From beyond the blazing bowls men came rushing, big men in chain-mail and with swords and axes, maces and war-hammers in their hands. They rushed at Niall, and their weapons gleamed redly in the bowl-lights. Niall snarled and went to meet them.
This was why he had been born, to fight, to slay, to wield a sword as though it were a scythe of Death itself. Maybe he was allied to Death, for Death rode where Blood-drinker cut and slashed. With a roar, he fended off a blade and hewed his steel through a neck.
He was in the midst of his attackers, then, whirling, darting, dodging a blow from mace or ax, freeing Blood-drinker to this feast of flesh which had been provided for it. He did not fight as an ordinary man fights, with care and caution, as ready to ward off a blow as he might be to strike one.
Nay! When Niall fought, he sought only to kill. His eyes saw an opening, his arm controlled the sweep of his sword, and when that blade fell, it was already lifting to strike again.
Pantherish were his leaps, lion-like his bellowed challenges. Men fell away before the onslaught of his steel, men died where they faced him or backed away. Yet always the swords and maces hammered at him, though more often than not he avoided their blows.
From his eye-corners, he saw Maylok moving restlessly about the pentagram, crying out encouragement to his guards. Yet there was a palsied fear upon the wizard; never had he seen a man battle as Niall fought now, with a reckless disregard for his own safety, concerned only with slaying all those he could reach with that long blade.
More men rushed from behind the lighted bowls, they hemmed Niall in, they offered their flesh to his blade in order to bring him down. The flat of an ax took him across the side of his head, a mace thumped his sword-arm, numbing it.
When he had no more room to swing Blood-drinker, he -dropped it and clawed out his Onavian dagger and buried it in chest and throat and belly. His other hand he used to sink iron-strong fingers deep into throat-flesh and choke out life from the man he held.
Even his massive muscles tired, after more than three hours of such battling. There were dead men on the floor, and pools of their blood on which his war-boots slipped. Once more a mace thumped his arm, again the flat of a blade landed on his skull. He went to a knee, half-conscious, but still he fought. Not until hands caught his arms and held them and someone swung a war-hammer did he go down.
Half-dazed he lay there, held by bleeding, desperate men who panted and sobbed in their tiredness, seeing Maylok as through a rheumy veil approach, to stand above him.
“No man has ever fought like you, Far-traveler,” whispered the exultant wizard. “Your blood shall be a strong elixir in my vials and alembics. Take him below to the dungeons and chain him there against my need.”
They dragged and half-carried the still-struggling Niall out of the spell-chamber, down the worn steps and into the deep pits below the palace, where the stink of rotting flesh warred with the moans of men and women imprisoned here, kept for the torment and the blood-letting.
To huge chains inset in the stone walls they fastened Niall, his arms apart, so that they seemed almost to be torn from their sockets. He could stand only with difficulty, for those links suspended even his giant frame a little. And then they mocked him.
“The wizard will make you pay for what you’ve done,” one said with a grin, blood running down his gashed face.
“He’ll keep you alive a long time, torturing you from day to day, to test your ability to suffer.”
“I’ve known him to cook a man alive, over two weeks, burning a little of him at a time.”
“Another man he flayed over the period of a full month, to pay him for a slight.”
They hit him with their fists and kicked him with their boots, but he stood stoically, with his eyes wide and glaring. One man carried his dagger and Blood-drinker in his hands, and these he thrust into his scabbards with a mocking laugh.
“I’ll leave them here with you, but where you can’t reach them. So near and yet out of reach. It may add to your torment, having them so close yet unable to use them.”
They went away after a time and left him in the blackness where only a distant torch shed any light. His head drooped, he was feeling the cuts and slashes now, the batterings he had taken from mace and war-hammer. Pain was an agony along his flesh and veins, and a raging thirst dried his throat and tongue.
He tugged at the chains, but they were tight-set in stone, and massive. His arms were stretched to their fullest length so he could exert little or no strength. His legs were tired of standing, yet he could not sleep for the manacles about his thick wrists dug their steel into his flesh when he would have relaxed. He stared into the darkness and muttered curses beneath his breath.
He sought to doze but the rats came, gray monsters that stood on their hind legs and sought to bite his knees and thighs, bared above his war-boots These he kicked away, killing some by the force of those kicks, but they remained away for only a short time, being driven by starvation. He heard men scream, and women too, from somewhere off in these pits, and he knew that Maylok was supervising their torture.
His time for that would come, he supposed, and made a wry face. He did not mind a clean death, but torture was repugnant to him. Fury at the wizard burned inside him, and his body shook in his rage so that the chains rattled.
Something touched him, soft as thistledown, so that it seemed not so much a touching as a faint caress. And his tiredness welled up in him so that he hung in his chains and slept. No rats came now to nibble at him, he heard not the screams of dying men and women. Deep were his slumbers, and dreamless.
When he woke, he was refreshed. His wrists hurt him where the manacles had held his sagging body, but there was a renewed vitality in his great muscles and he stood defiantly, as though daring his captors to approach. He had no knowledge of the time, but that distant torch still glowed, though only fitfully, enabling him to see a little better around him.
Once more that thistledown softness touched him and now he glanced sideways, and his flesh crawled for a moment. The shadow was with him!
It was little more than a deeper darkness against the blackness of the dungeon, but he could make it out. Was this some fiend sent by Maylok to bring him some undreamed-of torment? But no. Or if it was, it did nothing but stare at him.
Niall stared back and now — but faintly — he could make out greenish eyes in that umbrageous shape. He shook himself, the chains rattled.
“What are you?” he rasped. “What?”
The shadow did not speak, but stretched out a slim arm at the end of which was a shadow-hand. And at the tips of slim fingers, greenish balls of fire began to glow.
His torture would begin now, the Far-traveler knew. Curse Maylok by all the eleven hells for —
The green balls touched a manacle, not his flesh.
And where the manacle had been was only — rusted powder. That powder fell away, the chain dropped and his mightily thewed left arm was free. Again those green balls moved, to touch the other manacle and Niall stepped away from the stone wall.
“My thanks,” he growled. “Whoever you are.”
The shadow danced before him as if to lead him away from the dungeon wall. Niall put hands to his sword-hilt and his dagger, lifting them half out of their scabbards, and then he went after that flitting shape.
It ran before him, dancing almost in its eagerness, luring him as once before it had beckoned him on. But there was a difference in the shadow-being now; it did not slink but cavorted, spiraled and swayed — more gracefully than any dancing girl he had ever seen. It reminded him almost of that dream he had had, in which Lylthia had danced for him.
The shadow moved and where it went, Niall followed. To a small chamber it led him, and touched the iron bars and locks of its vast oak door with the green balls at the tips of its fingers. Niall put a hand to those plankings and pushed the door inward.
Chests lay piled one atop the other here, with small coffers and caskets above and beside them. The shadow gestured and the Sell-sword lifted the cover of one and then another.
He saw diamonds piled high in one, emeralds in another, golden coins in yet a third. Again the shadow-being waved a hand and Niall filled his money pouch with jewels and golden coins until it overflowed. There were treasures here gathered during Maylok’s lifetime and the lifetimes of his father and grandfather, who had been famous sorcerers in their own right. He would have liked to take it all, but knew it was beyond his power to carry.
At the far door, the shadow waited, and finally Niall went with it, running after it as it picked up speed. Through winding passageways and up dusty stairways long forgotten did the shadow-being take him, until they came at last to a walled-up doorway.
With the green balls, the shadow touched those stones and the stones melted to run in molten slag down onto the floor. Beyond the opening thus made was a dark drapery. This, Niall pushed aside.
He stood on the rim of the necromantic chamber where Maylok could be seen through the smoke of the flaming bowls, head flung back and arms raised high, as he chanted in some Forgotten, phylogenetic tongue. He was not aware that Niall was in his necromantic chamber, he was engrossed in his incantation. The shadow danced forward, pointing to Maylok and gesturing the Sell-sword forward.
Niall went at the run, yanking out the Orravian dagger. He would not bother to use his blade on the wizard, deeming him not worth the trouble of lifting Blood-drinker. As he ran, the shadow went with him and now he felt again that thistledown softness of its touch, where it clasped his wrist.
Maylok whipped around, startled by the faint sound of war-boots on stone. His eyes opened wide, his lips parted to scream.
Then Niall was over the blood-wet pentagram and raising his dagger for the death stroke. But the shadow was ahead of him, reaching out with its dainty hands for Maylok and the wizard screamed indeed when he saw that graceful blackness reaching out to gather him into its embrace.
Niall could not move. He paused in mid-stroke, not wanting to harm the shadow — not even knowing if he could — but seeing that shadow now as that of a pretty girl.
“Lylthia,” he whispered.
“Not Lylthia, no. But once I was — yes,” hissed a voice. Laughter rang out, cruel and mirthless.
The palace swirled about Niall as he swayed drunkenly inside that pentagram, feeling feeling the floor shift under his war-boots, knowing a dizziness induced not by blow of weapon but by some demonaic spell. Faster the palace moved, faster, faster. He could not stand, but reeled and would have fallen but for the cool hand that caught and held him.
He stood in redness.
Beneath him the floor was of scarlet stone, faintly hot. Around him rose gargantuan walls of a brilliant carmine streaked with slashes of deepest ebony, on which were hung strange tapestries and golden vessels. Massive columns of black and vermilion rose upward toward a distant roof half-hidden by redly glowing mists.
A thin high squealing caught his ears. Maylok was groveling on the warm stone floor, beating at it with his fists and scratching with his nails. His purple cloak and cowl were already smoking, his body writhed as though he were in torment.
“Save me, Far-traveler,” he mewled. “Save me and my treasure is yours. All the jewels, all the gold that my forefathers and I have gathered together, shall all be yours. And I — Maylok the Mighty, the wisest wizard in the world, shall be your slave!”
Niall growled, “I ought to kill you, you foul slug.”
“Yes!” Maylok screamed, struggling upward to his knees and presenting his scrawny throat. “Slay me! Slay me and take my treasures. Only do me this favor, Niall of the Mighty Arms — kill me, kill me!”
Soft laughter floated through the vast room. It mocked and taunted and when it touched the necromancer he grovelled on the floor.
“Great Emelkartha — spare me,” he bleated.
“Too late for mercy, Maylok. Nah, nah. You pay the price.”
And Maylok screamed.
In the midst of that screaming, a woman came forward, clad in diaphanous robes of crimson streaked with jet through which Niall could see the flesh tints of her body. Long black hair floated down about her shoulders and her green eyes blazed with fury. On her full mouth was a cold, cruel smile.
“Lylthia,” he whispered.
The green eyes slid sideways from the cringing necromancer to touch the Sell-sword, and it seemed to him they softened. “Not Lylthia, no. Not any more. Know me, barbarian, for Emelkartha herself.”
Niall said boldly, “Too bad. I think I could have loved Lylthia.”
Her mouth lost its cruelty, grew softly amorous. “The woman part of me knows that, Niall of the Far Travelings, and — thanks you.
“At first I was angry with you for saving me from Maylok’s men. I wanted to be taken by them, to be drained of blood, so that I could become — a shadow being. Yet you did me a favor and for that I am not ungrateful.
“You could pass the pentagram. Not even I could do that, not as Lylthia nor as her shadow. Yet by touching you, your strength drew me along — to catch Maylok in my arms and bring him here to my eleven hells, as men name this domain over which I rule.”
She was silent and Niall scanned her features, finding them more beautiful than ever, with broad brow and tip-tilted nose and those full lips exerting a sensuous appeal that shook him to his marrow. He licked his lips. Old Thallia had been right. A demon-woman had carried him off the world and into her abode. He wondered if he would ever return.
The green eyes glanced at him slyly.
“Well, Niall? Would you stay with me and be my lover?”
He found himself nodding, and she smiled but shook her head. “Nah, nah, you may not — though a part of me would like to keep you here. This place is not made for — human flesh. It cannot endure the heat and mephitic vapors for very long — without pain.”
Maylok screeched and banged his head against the hot floor.
Emelkartha whispered and now eerie shapes to which Niall could not put a name ran from the walls to lay tentacles upon Maylok and lift him to his feet. He was sweating, gasping for breath, trembling as with the ague.
“You made a mock of me, magician,” whispered Emelkartha, and how her voice burned the eardrums with its rage. “For that you shall suffer. As you have made your fellow-man suffer, so now shall you, from the first to the last of my eleven hells. You shall be tortured to death, yet shall be reborn after each death so that you may suffer even worse torments. Eleven times shall you die, eleven times shall you be reborn, to begin anew — until the end of Time itself!”
Maylok screamed and screamed. His body contorted and twisted, but he was helpless in those rubbery tentacles that held him. In this manner he was dragged across that hot stone floor toward a distant doorway through which Niall could glimpse blazing fires and up-reaching flames.
They drew the wizard through the doorway.
For an instant he seemed to come to a dead stop, with his sandals digging in at the stone floor. Peal after peal of agonized fear burst from his throat when he saw what lay before him. Then he was gone and steam rose up to blot out the sight of what was being done to him.
The demon-woman looked at Niall inquiringly. “You do not approve,” she whispered. “Yet Maylok has sinned against the demon world for too long a time, holding us in thrall. Soon — he would have been too strong for me to act against him, for he intended summoning up mega-demons known to me who would have prevented my disposing of him. His incantations are incomplete, and so my world — and yours — is safe from him, forever.”
He nodded, he knew what wickednesses Maylok had done, of girls ravished and tormented, of brave men broken and tortured into mindless hulks, of treasures taken from rightful owners. Maylok deserved these eleven hells.
There was nothing he, Niall, could do about it, anyhow.
His eyes ran over her body, so much revealed in the black and scarlet transparencies she wore. He sighed, and with that sigh, the woman-demon floated closer, tilting up her head and lifting her bare arms.
Niall caught her in his embrace, held her a moment, and kissed her. He would never forget that kiss. It burned deep into him, seemed to lift him out of his flesh into another state of being where pleasure was almost unendurable. His arms held this lissome woman to him, and something inside him told him that no mortal woman could ever afterward affect him as did this one whom he had known as Lylthia.
“For now — farewell,” her voice whispered…
She was gone and he stood alone inside the pentagram in the palace of the doomed wizard. A cold wind was blowing through the building, that chilled and refreshed him. He shook himself, touching his sword-hilt for reassurance that he still lived, that he was back in his own world.
His heart still thudded with the excitement of that last embrace. Whatever else she was, Emelkartha was a woman, her mouth had whispered to him of indescribable delights in that kiss. He shook his head, telling himself that he had gained a rich treasure in the gold and diamonds in his money pouch, but had lost something worth much more.
“Lylthia,” he whispered as he walked through the forsaken halls of the ancient palace. “Lylthia…”
Would Emelkartha ever appear to him again — in human form? As — Lylthia? She had the power, certainly, being a woman-demon. But would she? He did not know, all he could do was hope.
He walked out into the gathering dawn and made his way to the wall-gate, unmolested. It was as if, with the wizard’s death, his servants had all fled away. Or — been destroyed.
A river breeze had sprung up. He moved along the street toward the Hyssop, which would carry him to Urgrik. Yet there was a sadness in him, despite the wealth in his pouch.
“Lylthia,” he whispered once again.
But the sea-wind caught the name and carried it away.